Sunday, March 29, 2009

Consecration of Grace UMC Ministry Center

Grace UMC Got the Best Compliment I Can Imagine

Will and Patsy Willimon were our guests at Grace UMC today. For me, there is something deeply spiritual about having the bishop consecrate a new building. A historic responsibility of a bishop, consecration acknowledges that this place is to become holy ground. Bishop Willimon preached for both services and led us in consecration ceremonies for our Ministry Center, which is drawing close to completion.

One of the great blessings for me was spending time with Patsy. She shared with me the best compliment I can imagine (a compliment to Grace UMC, not me). She said, "Steve, this is a great church. I was commenting to one of your church members about the special things that happened in worship today." The day had involved GraceFull Players, sacred dancers, wonderful music all around, a piece written by our Music Director, good sound tech innovation, etc. She continued, "And you know what the man said? 'It's like that every week here at Grace. I love to come because I never know what's going to happen next'. Steve, this is a great church!"

So I pass this incredible compliment along to you, Grace UMC. I am so fortunate to serve in a place that supports and loves the creative arts in worship. The Word comes alive and changes lives when we give of ourselves so freely in sharing it creatively!

Would you like to hear Bishop Willimon's Sermon? You can listen to it online by going to our sermon archives.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Let Nothing Disturb You

The prayer book that Teresa of Avila was using at her death contained her "bookmark", the outpouring of her own heart, translated:

Let nothing disturb you,

Let nothing distress you,
All things pass away:
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things.
He who has God
Finds he lacks nothing;
God alone suffices.

Lord, I long for such peace. I long to let go and rest in you. I long for such abiding in you, my true vine, and trusting you for the fruit of love.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Is Jesus or Humanity the Center of our Speech and Practice?

I saw this quote by Ben Simpson on another blog recently and loved it. This articulates my greatest hope, which is in our return to focusing on Christ, our true vine:

As I’ve worked among friends I’ve had a common refrain, and that is that the hope of the denomination does not rest in our ability to formulate strategic plans or to rally our collective energies around common political initiatives. It rests in a return to God. I have noted that the most telling sign that renewal is near or soon to take place will be the moment when Jesus, rather than we human beings, becomes the center of our speech and our practice. I will know things have turned when our talk of Jesus seems to reflect that we believe in a living, dynamic, active, Lord who is our Master and Teacher, walking among us, instructing us, leading us, correcting us, and transforming us, rather than referring to a cosmic Christ who may be the object of our worship, but not one in whom we trust to accomplish all that much in our presence.

I pray it may be so! The key to transformation for God's church is not going to be in working harder or smarter. It is not going to be institututional, focusing on growth in numbers, but relational, focusing on growth in the Spirit. It will be in practicing the presence of Christ and passionate biblical hospitality.

For the rest of the article, check out An Open Letter to Young United Methodist Leaders.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Experiencing the Alva & Edna Maxwell Center

Experiencing the Alva & Edna Maxwell Center
Young Harris College

It is an awesome experience to stand on ground that those who have gone before you stood. My family and I visited Young Harris College in North Georgia during Spring Break. The Alva and Edna Maxwell Center, a building for business, mathematics, and science, is named after the aunt and uncle of my father.

My father lost his mother, Doris Maxwell, when he was less than two years old. My grandfather, J.P. West, Sr., later remarried. Doris Maxwell and all her siblings went to Young Harris College, where she met my grandfather. He was recruited by a District Superintendent from North Alabama to come to our conference as a pastor. The story is that Doris’ mother ran the lunchroom and was able to put them all through school there at Young Harris.

One of Doris’ siblings became a prominent banker with the Citizens Southern Bank. He and his wife gave most of the money for this building and invited others in the family to donate as well (my father was one who did). This is the building I went to visit.

What an experience it was to walk in and see, near the entrance, the portraits of my Great Aunt and Great Uncle, whose face strongly resembles some of Dad’s sisters. The plaque reads:

The Maxwell Center
Alva G. and Edna Stephens Maxwell

Whose lives have been intertwined with the growth and development of the Young Harris College. As graduates, they have played central roles in the history of the college and the United Methodist Church. We are drawn to them; they are our mentors and they have influenced the lives of so many of all ages and backgrounds. Communication with them is open and truthful, touching on issues, people, ideals and dreams; Always there is the charm, the lively mind, the interests that have no bounds. Theirs is a clear and steady vision. Their lives are eloquent, vigorous and compelling in calling forth the creative responses to meet the problems of our day. If it can be said of any couple that they exemplify the ideal expressed by Matthew Arnold of seeing life steadily and seeing it whole, it can and should be said of Alva and Edna Maxwell. All at Young Harris College are better for having known them.


Saturday, March 14, 2009

Thoughts on Family Systems, Spiritual Formation, and Leadership

Picking up on my last post about the vine and the branches, I would like to share a portion of a letter of praise I wrote recently to leaders who planned a most wonderful workshop I went to on Thursday. It was led by Dr. Ron Martoia and entitled "Getting Your Church Past 'Stuck'".

I wanted to thank you for what was, for me, the best church leadership workshop I've ever been to. Ever.

I got burned out on church growth workshops years ago because they began to feel bane, fixated on technique, and void of any depth that would help me grow in awareness of myself and emotional dynamics of change. I know that bane may seem a strong word, but I would leave feeling wounded by increased pressure to perform with no more ability to navigate. In those years, by grace I turned to Family Systems theory which brought me both healing and perspective about change dynamics. Then I also discovered Spiritual Formation studies so that I was not drawing from such an empty well.

I say all that to say this. The workshop yesterday was the first time I have heard articulated, in a nutshell, the journey I have gone through myself in finding my way as a leader. For me, it was a "retreat of integration" but I also wish I had heard this 12 or 15 years ago. It was the first worskhop on transformational leadership that I have been to that has drawn together systems thinking with emphasis on spiritual formation, through the eyes of someone who has been an outstanding local church leader. What wonderful weaving.

This is to say thank you. So much of what we do in our conference contributes to wholeness and transformation. Natural Church Development and Pastoral Care and Counseling, for sure, plus some historic formational ministries and holy places, plus outstanding local churches and leaders who embrace wholeness and navigate the waters of change. You all are to be commended for the amazing work you do.

At the same time, I wish that someone would do an honest and balanced analysis of our conference as an emotional system. Though I serve transformative churches and am considered effective, I continue to be troubled about rhetoric and policies that represent fixation on results, with little definition (or questionable definition) about what effectiveness is. When not balanced with an organic understanding of who we are and a trust in God for fruit (Jesus defined effectiveness in the metaphor of the vine and the branches), and without a complementary and relational commitment to support leaders in the journey of self-care and awareness, I feel the rhetoric pressurizes the system. At times it "lives out" some deep institutional anxiety about loss and spreads that anxiety around in ways that do not lead to transformation but to fight, flight, freezing, and cutoff. Ron said this so beautifully when he was talking late in the day about the danger of imposing expertise or ideas on a system without awareness of emotional processes.

Thanks for listening, and for your part in not only transformational growth in our conference but in planning a great and thought provoking day.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Vine and the Branches - Have We Forgotten?

Jesus gave us a great gift when he gave us an image, a metaphor, a way of understanding ourselves and our ministry in the world. He taught that he is the vine and we are the branches. If we abide in the true Vine, and he in us, we will bear much fruit. He promises that it will be fruit that will last.

I imagine all mainline denominations are struggling, as mine is, with this concept of what fruit is. In our age of deep anxiety about institutional decline, it is tempting to be reductionist. We reduce the concept of fruitfulness to a less organic and more institutional way of thinking. We are left busily counting our fruit, crunching our numbers of membership or baptisms or giving or some other such measurable and quantifyable results, instead of focusing on the True Vine who gives us life. In our culture fixated on functionalism, we might even reduce our understanding of worship to a matter of whether it produces desired results.

To abide in the Vine and trust God for fruit that will last is an act of faith like it never has been before. Our effectiveness is not up to us. The goal of our lives is not to be more productive or successful but to live in a greater mystery. If we abide in Christ, he promises, we will bear fruit that will last. If we trust God with the fruit and focus on being who God made us to be, we place ourselves in God's hands. Do we no longer believe this?

I choose to live in Christ's alternative value system.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Hallelujah Chorus Comedy

This is the Hallelujah Chorus like you've never seen it before! Monks with a vow of silence hold up signs. It's hilarious, have a look!

Monday, March 2, 2009

Steve's Rule of Life

Developing a "Rule of Life" is an ancient spiritual discipline that emerged from monastic influence and the traditions of religious orders. For me, a simple, personal rule provides structure that helps me grow deeper in my spiritual formation. The Latin term regula does not have some of the negative connotations that the English word "rule" has. It is a joy, a tool for growth ... not something difficult or punitive. It regulates my life in the way I want it to.

This is my Rule of Life as revised October of 2007. I keep it posted by my desk and at home in my dresser. When I vary from it, I gently and gracefully bring myself back to it. I share this not only for a bit of accountability to you, friends and family, but as witness to what living a rule has meant in my life. I encourage you to make your own.


“Do justice to your own soul. Give it time and means to grow.
Do not starve yourselves any longer.” – John Wesley

1. Seek to practice the presence of God.

2. At least five times a week, spend 45 minutes to an hour allowing God space to do “soul work” in me. If I can’t do this first thing in the office, I will reschedule it with diligence as it is an appointment with God. Balance and rhythm for this time includes:

- Praying the psalms
- Silence
- Lectio divina
- Spiritual classics and resources
- Journaling and prayer
- Worship

3. Set aside Thursday morning for holy time of sermon preparation without interruption or distraction. Do not read emails first!

4. Friday and Saturday are Sabbath times and I will not go into the office.

5. Seek to be more differentiated by:

- Being clear with myself about who I am and what my boundaries are
- Staying connected with difficult people
- Responding not reacting, maintaining a non-anxious presence

6. Practice spiritual direction and covenant group as a means of spiritual accountability and support.

7. Exercise 3 times a week (gym or outdoors), practice moderation with carbohydrates, and refrain from late night snacks (except fruit).

8. Go on a spiritual formation or private prayer retreat at least quarterly.